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JS Bach: St Matthew Passion (Pygmalion/Pichon)

Sabine Devieilhe, Stéphane Degout, Christian Immler et al; Pygmalion/Raphaël Pichon (Harmonia Mundi)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

JS Bach
St Matthew Passion
Sabine Devieilhe, Hana Blažiková (soprano), Lucile Richardot (mezzo-soprano), Tim Mead (countertenor), Julian Prégardien, Reinoud van Mechelen, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro (tenor), Stéphane Degout (baritone), Christian Immler (bass-baritone); Pygmalion/Raphaël Pichon
Harmonia Mundi HMM902691.93   147:40 mins (3 discs)

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When he founded the ensemble, Raphaël Pichon knew that he wanted to mark Pygmalion’s tenth anniversary with a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. All their Bach leading up to it was, in a sense, a preparation for something that had to be ‘earned’ – yet he has still waited a few more years before making this much-considered recording. Not for Pichon a minimalist approach. His two choirs each muster 16 singers, and their respective orchestras slightly more instrumentalists. His continuo contains double bass and theorbo, and is deployed with considerable imagination, colouring and illuminating certain moments to add a new layer of meaning. And he relies on an old ally as Evangelist. Impeccable in his pacing and narrative empathy, Julian Prégardien is the project’s lynchpin.

The choirs are razor-sharp in their ensemble, and if they seem initially soft-grained (in keeping with Pichon’s essentially intimate approach), their incisiveness eventually locates real venom and mockery as the events of Part 2 intensify. They’re not just beautifully balanced within themselves but also in relation to the instruments, encouraging some seductively crystal-clear textures. And Pichon’s superb soloists are of a scale that pre-empts any violent gear changes. First among them is Stéphane Degout’s Christus, every inch the New Testament Messiah rather than Old Testament prophet. Pichon’s tempos sometimes generate problems either practical or interpretive, but he has the ability to create a musical space where a listener is allowed to ponder rather than being told what to think.

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Paul Riley